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A Facebook phone: Why?

3 Apr

I talk to Marketplace in advance of the Facebook phone announcement.

Audio and story.

Facebook experiments with free Wi-Fi, for a price

7 Mar

I talk to APM’s Marketplace about Facebook and free WiFi

Facebook says its experimenting with a few local businesses to “offer a quick and easy way to access free Wi-Fi after checking in on Facebook.”

Rocky Agrawal, a consultant at reDesign mobile, suspects there’s more to this than good will.

“It’s a good way for Facebook to know where you’re at, they can deliver all sorts of new offers,” Agrawal says.

Story and audio.

LinkedIn vs. Facebook: Game On!

12 Feb

I talk on CNBC’s Street Signs about why LinkedIn is doing so well and the challenges Facebook faces.

Video.

Local restaurant tries do-it-yourself Groupon

8 Mar

I was checking Twitter today and came across this local restaurant trying a Groupon-like offer on its own:

 

Wildwood in Portland is trying a do-it-yourself Groupon with its Twitter and Facebook followers.

Wildwood in Portland is trying a do-it-yourself Groupon with its Twitter and Facebook followers.

Wildwood is an upscale and top-rated restaurant in Portland. It has 4 stars and 101 reviews on Yelp and 5 “Best Ever” awards on Hotpot.

It has 745 likes on Facebook and 632 followers on Twitter. These are well above the market medians of 398 and 352. (It’s impossible to say what the unduplicated reach is across Facebook and Twitter.)

So how is this different from running a Groupon?

  • More revenue for Wildwood. It gets to keep all of the revenue generated. In a typical Groupon deal, Wildwood would get about $15 for each $50 gift certificate sold. Here, it keeps the entire $30. Given that food costs are typically 30% of a restaurant’s expenses, Groupons are break-even at best just on incremental cost.
  • More restrictions on redemptions. Groupons usually have longer redemption times and fewer restrictions on redemption. They are often valid for a year and can be used at almost any time. These certificates are only valid for dinner on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and not valid for alcohol. It’s essentially a yield-management play, used to fill seats when the restaurant would otherwise be empty. Some restaurants use OpenTable’s Dining Rewards to accomplish this. These factors combine to increase the restaurant’s profitability on the deal.
  • More qualified customers. The restaurant is essentially reaching people who have already expressed some interest in it. Some of these are undoubtedly existing customers.Groupon brings in a much broader range of customers. That is both a blessing and a curse: some will be potentially new customers who will become repeat visitors; some will just be deal seekers who are unlikely to return. For many businesses, the primary market area is a 5-mile radius. Groupon’s coarse geographic targeting amounts to casting too broad a net for many local businesses.
  • No online purchases. The deal requires that customers visit Wildwood to buy and pick up the gift certificate. This is both good and bad: it means that customers are more qualified because they have to visit twice. They are more likely to live nearby and thus more likely to be repeat customers. But it also serves as a significant deterrent to purchase.
  • Limited viral distribution. Wildwood may reach some new prospects as other retweet/share the link. Twitter accounts like EaterPDX sometimes share such announcements. At the time of this writing, two people had retweeted the offer, for an additional 1,000 potential impressions. But it’s not likely to spread as virally as deals on Groupon and LivingSocial do. Both platforms offer built-in financial incentives for sharing deals with others.

I’ll check in with the business later in the week to see if they’re willing to share the results.

As I wrote earlier, businesses and consumers are directly connecting with each other online. In some ways, you can consider Groupon an arbitrage business — using its skill in marketing and online customer acquisition to deliver traffic to local businesses. (Much like ServiceMagic and 800-DENTIST.) As local businesses get more sophisticated and adopt tools like Facebook and Twitter, this will put margin pressure on Groupon and its peers.

Business and consumer engagement in local search

6 Mar

Part 1: Local search is starting to get more social
Part 2: How the battle for local search will be won
Part 3: Google Hotpot a strong competitor to Yelp
Part 4: Statistics on business and consumer engagement in local search
Part 5: Foursquare 3.0 takes mobile ball to a whole new level

Earlier in this series, I talked about the importance of business and consumer engagement in the success of local search. Here are some statistics based on research I conducted in the Portland market.

Business engagement

Staking out a presence online is the most basic step, and it seems that most businesses are taking this step. With the exception of foursquare, all of these numbers are substantially higher than I expected.

Proportion of businesses using each tool.

Proportion of businesses using each tool.

Web sites

86% of businesses I looked at had a Web site. The quality of the Web sites varied tremendously, but generally included business location, contact information and hours. Some included sample menus. Most weren’t regularly updated. For businesses that had Twitter and Facebook presences, links to those sites were usually provided. A few embedded Twitter feed widgets right on the home page.

The difficulty in updating Web sites (which are often done as one-off projects by design shops) was evidenced by the fact that some still had Christmas promotions up in March. One business owner apologetically encouraged customers to check Twitter and Facebook for updates because “we can update from our cell phones which is huge.”

Claiming presence on Google, Yelp, Facebook and foursquare

“Claiming” a page on local search sites that consumers use provides a number of benefits that vary by site, including the ability to edit your map position, enter information such as hours of operation, post special offers, see metrics about visitors to your page and respond to reader reviews. Perhaps the most important benefit is to keep competitors and malicious users from messing with your page. Claiming is a relatively low-effort activity.

Google and Yelp, two of the leaders in the local search space had equal claim rates. Facebook’s Places product had a claim rate of 10% (not shown on the graph), including one business who claimed the page as I was preparing this report. (I love that she posted this on Facebook and explained Places to a customer in the comments.)

Foursquare lagged with only 5% of businesses claiming their foursquare page.

Twitter

Twitter does not provide a default presence for businesses, yet 55% of businesses I looked at had a Twitter presence. Many of these were regularly updated with information on specials, events, industry news and closings. Several food carts used their Twitter presences in place of Web sites. See my earlier post, Twittering up some dosas. Several businesses had abandoned their Twitter accounts and were not included in the charts.

Facebook

44% of businesses I looked at had a presence on Facebook. “Presence” varied, because Facebook has offered various tools over time and businesses have adopted Facebook in various ways. I’ve linked to examples of each:

  • Profile page – Businesses set themselves as if they were people and were friended as if they were people.
  • Group – Businesses created a group. Customers joined these groups.
  • Page – Businesses created a “Page” which customers could originally “Fan” and now “Like”.
  • Places page – Businesses in theory automatically have a Places page which people can check into. In practice, finding these businesses can be difficult because Facebook’s search tools don’t deliver consistent search results.
  • Combined page – Businesses can merge their Page with their Places page. The combined page is the fullest featured one.

Twitter and Facebook combined

35% of businesses had both a Twitter and Facebook presence. For businesses on both platforms, the median followers was 424 on Facebook and 323 on Twitter. Some of these businesses used tools, such as Facebook’s Twitter sync, to feed the same information to both platforms.

Consumer engagement

Consumers are engaging with local businesses online.

This chart shows the range of followers on Twitter and Facebook. (These numbers are directly comparable.) The chart also shows the number of unique users who had checked into venues on foursquare. The ranges are quite wide: foursquare (1 to 2385), Facebook (9 to 4998) and Twitter (6 to 14027).

There was no clear pattern to the outliers; I expected this to be correlated to the size of the business, but it didn’t seem to be. The outliers also varied by platform.

Distribution of followers and unique users.

Distribution of followers and unique users.

The medians from the above chart are summarized below. I also added the median number of Yelp reviews.

Median consumer engagement.

Median consumer engagement.

Although the numbers may not seem large in the absolute sense, they represent a highly targeted list of consumers who have expressed interest in a business and are likely to be repeat customers.

Checkins

Checkins are still an emerging behavior. Here is the distribution of check ins on foursquare and Facebook:

Distribution of check ins on foursquare and Facebook.

Distribution of check ins on foursquare and Facebook.

The range on foursquare was 1 to 3695; on Facebook, it was 0 to 1587. The medians were 192 for foursquare and 63 for Facebook.

In every case, foursquare checkins were higher than Facebook checkins. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that foursquare has been around longer. Mostly, I’d attribute it to the selection bias of foursquare users and its game mechanics.

The range of checkins per unique user for Facebook was 1 to 4.06. The median ratio (on a venue basis) was 1.56; the median on a user basis is likely lower. Given that many venues require 5 or more checkins to get to mayor, this indicates that checkins are driven by a small proportion of users.

Methodology notes

The above charts are based on a review of 100 local businesses in the Portland area, focused on high consumer value and frequency categories such as restaurants, bars and cafes. National chains were excluded from the sample. The sample included a mix of new and old businesses and businesses that ranged in size from food carts to large restaurants and brewpubs.

Google Hotpot a strong competitor to Yelp

3 Mar

Part 1: Local search is starting to get more social
Part 2: How the battle for local search will be won
Part 3: Google Hotpot a strong competitor to Yelp
Part 4: Statistics on business and consumer engagement in local search
Part 5: Foursquare 3.0 takes mobile ball to a whole new level

Google’s Hotpot is a head on challenge to Yelp, the long-standing leader in gathering local reviews in the U.S. Although Google has been soliciting local reviews for years, Hotpot is the biggest effort by Google to gather local reviews. Google is accompanying the new product with a large marketing push in the Portland area.

Ratings and reviews

Google’s initial goal seems to be to get as many ratings as possible. To that end, it has made giving your opinion very easy. While Yelp encourages long-form reviews with a lot of detail, Google encourages basic star ratings. It’s primary Web interface makes it easy to quickly rate many places. Animations when you’ve completed a rating add a touch of fun to the process; once you’ve rated a business, the card flip over to allow you to write a review. The box is sized for about four sentences. Restaurants can also be sub-rated on Food, Service, Atmosphere and Value with a smiley face or frowny face.

Hotpot's rating screen allows you to quickly rate many local businesses.

Hotpot's rating screen allows you to quickly rate many local businesses.

On Android devices, a widget makes rating possible without launching the Google Places app.

As you can see at the top of the screenshot, the ease of rating has the potential to generate a lot of quick hits of data — my ratio is about 4 ratings to each review. See my earlier post about using lots of small nuggets of data to make intelligent recommendations.

Hotpot integrates with your search history on Google. This serves as a reminder to rate places you may have recently visited. Given Google’s vast query volume, this is another important differentiator.

Hotpot also shows ratings and reviews. While Google builds up its ratings and review corpus, the page focuses on aggregated reviews from other local sites, including Yelp, insiderpages, CitySearch and others. This has been a bone of contention for Yelp’s CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman.

Recommendations

Google hopes to make intelligent recommendations with all of your ratings data. Instead of having users sift through mounds of data to find the right business, Google does the lifting for you.

Recommendations come in two forms:

  • Recommendations based on your previous ratings. These span venue types. For example, Ikea was recommended for me because I rated Voodoo Donuts highly.
  • Recommendations based on the ratings of your friends.

The quality of recommendations seems to be hit-and-miss so far. Some seem entirely logical; others, like the Ikea recommendation were baffling.

A few examples to allow you to judge for yourself:

The advantage of such recommendations over, say, answering Jeopardy! questions, is that it’s hard to prove them wrong immediately.

Recommendations don’t currently span metro areas. For example, if you rate places in San Francisco and then visit Chicago, the San Francisco data don’t seem to be used to make recommendations in Chicago. Google could use data like cuisine and price preferences to make at least a first cut at recommendations.

 

Hotpot recommendations in Google search results.

Hotpot recommendations in Google search results.

Recommendations are surfaced in a variety of places, such at the Google Places app, Google Maps and most importantly, Google search. In the screenshot above, you can see a recommendation embedded right in the search results.

This placement and personalization is an important differentiator that may drive users to Google Hotpot over Yelp and other competitors. Here, you can see a review from my friend Adam embedded in the search results:

Google Hotpot shows reviews from friends.

Google Hotpot shows reviews from friends.

Local is the perfect place for social search: It reflects how we do things In Real Life. Friends and family are often the first places we look for advice on restaurants and nightlife. Even reviews from people whose tastes we disagree with are helpful.

Google’s big challenge with social recommendations is the lack of a good social graph. I have exactly one friend feeding into my Hotpot recommendations. Other players such as Yelp and foursquare have piggy backed on Facebook’s social graph. Google can’t. And after last year’s Buzz privacy issues, Google is likely being more cautious in using other Google-collected data for a social graph.

A significant problem with the recommendations is that they aren’t used as a filter. This is especially important in mobile, where screen sizes are smaller and patience is usually shorter. In one search, the top results was a recommended place. The next results that were recommended were in positions 14 and 30. In between were places that were farther away and even some places that were closed.

When I searched for a restaurant in downtown San Francisco from my Android phone, the first personalized result was Adam’s Osha Thai restaurant, in position 16.

The stated purpose of Hotpot is a ratings and recommendations tool; the recommended places should be at the top of the list.

Mobile app

Google Places app for Android.

Google Places app for Android.

Google’s mobile search app (called Google Places) is in some ways comparable to Yelp, but Yelp’s mobile app is overall still a stronger experience.

Google Places provides a number of filters, including distance, rating, currently open, price and neighborhood. Additional filters (hidden behind the >>) allow you to search by cuisine or ambiance.

The “Open now” filter is especially important on mobile devices, where the focus is often on the here and now. In the listings, you can see annotations such as “Open until 10:00 pm” and “Opens at 4:30 pm” for places where Google has such data. Yelp’s hours data seems to be much more comprehensive.

There’s also a filter to see just the places that have been rated by friends. Oddly, there’s no way to see just the places that are recommended by Hotpot.

Places shows offers from the few businesses who are using Google Offers. There’s no way to show only businesses with offers.

Like Yelp, Facebook and foursquare, the Places app allows users to check in to a business.

The Places app doesn’t allow users to add new businesses or upload photos.

A digital to-do list

Hotpot allows you to “Save for later”, which is a great way to keep a list of places that you may want to visit later. These are integrated with Google Maps (on the desktop and in mobile) and shown as stars whenever you render a Google Map. It can be helpful when planning trips — you may discover that a shopping trip takes you near a restaurant that you’ve been meaning to visit.

I have been using Yelp’s bookmark feature (and Google My Maps before that) to track restaurants I want to visit; the integration with Google Maps may have me switch to Hotpot for that. It would be nice if Hotpot let you record why you saved it for later (e.g. recommended by Epicurious, have Groupon).

Overall experience

The biggest problem with Hotpot right now is that the overall experience doesn’t hold together. There are numerous brands being used, including Hotpot, Google, Maps and Places. In some places, clicking takes you to a map-based page, other places take you to a listings-based page. Icons and terminology are all over the board. The mobile app is similar. Maps, Latitude and Places all seem to point into similar experiences.

What’s missing?

Listing freshness. Having up-to-date listings is an important part of the local search experience. Here, Google lags both Yelp and foursquare, especially when it comes to new businesses and non-standard places such as food carts. Hotpot doesn’t seem to be designed to address this problem. There isn’t an obvious way to add new listings. Hypothetically, Google could algorithmically find new businesses by looking at search patterns and traffic to sites like Yelp.

Photos. Visuals are a large part of the experience when it comes to dining and nightlife. Although Google scrapes some pictures from other sites, they aren’t using mobile apps to collect these. Instead, Google is paying professional photographers to take pictures at selected venues. Not only is this expensive and not scalable, it’s a lot less authentic.

Engaged consumers. Yelp and foursquare have highly engaged users who significantly enhance the quality of the data.

Engaged businesses. Facebook and Twitter have engaged businesses who regularly update content about their businesses. Apparently Google offers a similar feature, but in more than a year since its launch, I’ve only seen one business use it. I found that while doing research for this post.

Tighter integration with Android. There are opportunities to improve the local experience by integrating better with the phone experience. For example, sending a message with location information could be more seamless.

Conclusion

I’ve deliberately avoided doing a feature-by-feature checklist. Having the most features rarely matters. Flickr has been trounced in the photo sharing space by Facebook, despite having many more features for photo lovers. The sheer size of Facebook’s distribution system was enough to overcome its feature gaps.

Google definitely doesn’t have the most features or the most engaged audiences. It’s not (as far as I can tell) trying to build local communities centered around reviewing places.

But Google has three things that are hard to match: incredible distribution from Google search, deep pockets for promotions and Android. Facebook is the only company that can really come close to Google when it comes to distribution.

Google can surely solve the branding and consistency issues that make the current product experience frustrating. The bigger question is whether Google can develop a social graph that will really drive home the benefits of Hotpot.

See also:

Thanks to Mike Blumenthal for the pointer to Google’s business status updates.

Disclosure: I have several good friends who work at Google and went to high school with co-founder and CEO Larry Page. I’ve benefited from free drinks and other Google schwag at various Google promotions in Portland.

How the battle for local search will be won

24 Feb

Part 1: Local search is starting to get more social
Part 2: How the battle for local search will be won
Part 3: Google Hotpot a strong competitor to Yelp
Part 4: Statistics on business and consumer engagement in local search
Part 5: Foursquare 3.0 takes mobile ball to a whole new level

Local search has changed dramatically in the last decade. Gone are the days when you could buy a generic database from a mailing list provider, slap maps on it and have a local search solution. Social networks, mobile phones and businesses themselves are changing and enriching local search.

These are the key factors that will define success in local search going forward:

User generated content and engagement

Yelp and foursquare's mobile apps allow users to add photos.

Yelp and foursquare's mobile apps allow users to add photos.

The best local search databases are content rich. They include attributes such as hours of operation, friendliness of the place to kids and pets, whether there is outdoor seating, etc. Many of these attributes are collected by users themselves. Increasingly, this is being done on mobile phones — people can update data before they’ve even left the place.

Users also help to maintain the quality of the databases. In my research, there wasn’t a single case where Yelp or foursquare didn’t have a place I was looking for. There were quite a few that I couldn’t find in Google Places and Facebook. For the U.S., the best database of restaurants and bars is at Yelp. New places are often in Yelp’s database as soon as the place opens. (Sometimes even before the official open, as people participate in friends and family dinners and soft launches.) Foursquare’s data are also comprehensive, but are cluttered by users who try to exploit the service’s game mechanics by creating extraneous venues.

Users can also report businesses that have closed, helping alleviate the frustration of driving to a business only to find out that it is no longer around. Check in data on foursquare and Yelp can also identify anomalies. (e.g. a check in stream that suddenly stops can indicate that a business has closed.)

Photos are key components of some of these databases. The growth of smartphones will only further this trend. Some venues on Yelp have a hundred or more photos. Yelp reports that its users are uploading a photo on average once every 30 seconds. Foursquare recently introduced photos. Google is sending professional photographers out to take pictures of top places. Specialized applications like foodspotting have small but loyal audiences who upload pictures of specific dishes at restauranst.

When it comes to mobile data collection, Google’s Hotpot is weak. New places can’t be added and photos can’t be uploaded. It supports ratings, reviews and identifying problems such as closed businesses and duplicate venues.

But providing tools isn’t enough; it’s important to provide the right incentives.

Yelp has done a great job of providing ordinary users incentives to contribute to the maintenance of its database. It uses both social reinforcement and more tangible rewards. Yelp makes it easy for members to thank and compliment each other for reviews. Selected reviews are featured in weekly newsletters. Review often enough and you become a Yelp elite and have a badge on your profile.

Yelp employs community managers in its markets to help reinforce the community. Frequent events (including Yelp-hosted parties) provide more incentives to review and create adhesion among the community. Only a small proportion of the Yelp user base does any of these things. But you only need 1 person to provide value to millions. Yelp’s dedicated, engaged user base will be a significant barrier to other competitors in the space.

Business engagement

It’s taken a long time, but small businesses are finally engaging with consumers online. 60% of the businesses I looked at had Twitter feeds. (See my earlier posts: Why don’t local businesses use the Internet? and Twitter and foursquare: the tipping point to getting local business online.)

Businesses are using these tools to communicate specials, announce closings (e.g. for private events), run promotions, have contests and just engage with their customers. I’ve even seen businesses helping businesses; one business had electrical problems and another business offered her electrician’s number in response. Here is a snippet from a Twitter list I created of restaurants in Portland:

A snippet from a business list in Portland.

A snippet from a business list in Portland.

Beachwood BBQ

Beers on tap at Beachwood BBQ. Click the image for a live version.

This sort of real-time information can help sway a decision or prompt users to go out on a night when they would otherwise have stayed in. Radio Room in Portland does a great job of this with their Twitter feed.

The image to the right is an image from the Hops Cam at Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, Calif. It allows users to instantly see what’s on tap now. What spot now?, an iPhone app, allows users to see real-time cameras from various restaurants.

Although Google, Yelp and foursquare allow businesses the opportunity to claim their page, there is no mechanism to communicate with customers through their platform.

Businesses are claiming pages and providing enhanced attribute information. Nearly 2/3 of businesses I looked at have claimed their Google and Yelp pages.

Recommendations

Hotpot recommendations

This screenshot shows a recommendation in Hotpot based on other places I've rated.

To date, no one has done a great job of making recommendations based on a user’s preferences or social network. Local search has required users to sift through mounds of data or just go for serendipity (like in UrbanSpoon). Yelp and foursquare have had some form of social recommendations. Both will highlight recommendations from friends, but their social graphs haven’t been large or relevant enough.

This is a key focus area for Google Hotpot.

When you do a search, you might see recommendations based on other places you’ve rated.

Or you might see that a friend has rated the place. Unlike recommendations from strangers, this provides immediate context. I know some friends whose tastes are similar. If they like a place, I know the chances are good that I will like a place. Negative affinity can be helpful, too. There are a few people whose tastes are so divergent that I know not to go someplace they rate highly.

Pictures also play a big part in decision making. Local search has long relied on textual data because it’s been easy and available. But visuals are a key part of the experience when it comes to dining and nightlife. They can answer questions like “Is this place fancy or a dive?” and “Would this place be a great place for an anniversary dinner?” much quicker than text reviews can. See Picturing a new vision for local search. Pictures are also much easier to go through on a mobile device.

Making intelligent recommendations requires having a lot of data. The easier you can make it, the more participation you will have. Few people will go through the trouble of writing detailed reviews, but 1-click ratings can provide important signals and will have a higher participation rate. See more on recommendation engines for local search.

Distribution

No matter how good your content is, it doesn’t matter if you can’t get it in front of people. Here, Google has an indisputable advantage. Google sites serve 170 million people in the U.S. Yelp reaches 26 million. (Many of these come through the help of Google’s search results.) Foursquare claims several million downloads. The difference in scale is enormous.

Google’s distribution advantage extends to mobile with prominent applications on iPhone and deep integration within the Android OS. Facebook is also a large player here, with more than 150 million unique mobile users worldwide. When they set their eyes to local, they will be a big player to watch.

Sharing

Local search often involves a shared experience. Plans are made and coordinated. So far, no one has really provided a great solution for this. Here’s a simplified version of how the process often works:

Step 1: Person A looks up a place on a local search site.

Step 2: Person A sends the place name via SMS to Person B (and C, D…).

Step 3: Person B gets the text message and looks it up in a local search site to find the address and look up information.

Step 4: Person B responds to Person A that it’s acceptable. (Or not, back to Step 1.)

Step 5: Person B then uses the site to generate driving directions.

This could be greatly simplified. Again, Google’s deep integration into Android provides an advantage. Person A could find and text the place information. The receiving phone would identify that the link is specially formatted and instead of presenting it at as an SMS, would present a Places page with pictures and reviews and an accept/reject button. Such sharing could also help Google build out a social graph.

Local search is starting to get more social

21 Feb

Part 1: Local search is starting to get more social
Part 2: How the battle for local search will be won
Part 3: Google Hotpot a strong competitor to Yelp
Part 4: Statistics on business and consumer engagement in local search
Part 5: Foursquare 3.0 takes mobile ball to a whole new level

Social search has been talked about for several years now as the wave of the future. We’ll get better information with the help of our friends. Local is the ideal place to prove that out:

  • Most people tend to have a lot of friends in their immediate area.
  • Local search revolves around everyday experience.
  • The “answers” are based on opinions.

Google’s entry into the space is Hotpot, a local ratings and recommendations tool. It is spending a significant amount of money to promote Hotpot in the Portland and Austin markets.

Hotpot is clearly meant to compete with Yelp. To a lesser degree, it competes with Facebook Places and foursquare. (It’s funny how much the local search space has changed in the last few years. AOL, Mapquest, CitySearch and newspaper Web sites have largely dropped off the local map in recent years.)

It’s important to set the context in this fight: Google is already the undisputed leader in local search. Despite the attention that other sites get, Google is the number one place people go to get local information. More than 20% of Google queries are local in nature. Google Search serves about 170 million users. I bet 99.99% of them have done a local query. Yelp serves 26 million users in the United States. But many of those users come through the Google front door. (Partly because Yelp is one of the best SEOs out there.)

There are two core problems to be solved in local search. Providing someone additional information on a business whose name they know and providing guidance to those who are open to suggestions on a business.

Business name searches

The first problem is largely solved, despite the fact that the scope of the problem has increased. Just a few years ago, it meant providing someone the name, address, phone number and a map for a business. Today, it increasingly includes providing hours of operation, attributes such as romantic, kid-friendly, links to make reservations and menu information.

Distribution and integration helps Google capture business name searches. You can use the browser’s search box and Google.com to get your answer. With an Android phone, it’s even simpler. Press a button, speak your search and the answer appears.

Google can answer most of the basic questions about many businesses in the United States. Yelp has the best data out there for restaurants and bars in the United States. I’ll get to the reasons why later.

Google has difficulty with non-standard venues. For example, in Portland, it does poorly with food carts. In most cases, I don’t advocate manually updating a database to address localized concerns. But given the amount of money that Google is spending on promotion in Portland and the importance of food carts in the city’s dining scene, they should follow the advice of an Oregon company and “Just do it.” A basic effort could be done in a day by using online resources. A street team could hit all of the major food cart areas and provide enhanced data such as hours and pictures in a few days. (While also handing out Google stickers.)

Discovery searches

The other core problem in local search is discovery — helping to find an appropriate answer when they only have a few parameters or no clue what they’re looking for. These are the questions like “I want a kid-friendly pizza place nearby.” “I want to go to some place fancy,” “I’m looking for a special night out on the town.”

This is an area that Yelp excels at but Google generally sucks at.  The problem with Yelp (and the opportunity for Google) is that getting the most out of Yelp requires a lot of work from the user. Yelp has an incredible amount of rich data on local businesses. But it’s too much. It’s overwhelming to see hundreds of reviews. Using Yelp also means trusting people you don’t know, whose tastes may be very different from yours. And it means dealing with the snarkiness of reviewers who often spend more time talking about their life stories and girlfriend problems than the business they’re supposedly reviewing.

Yelp has introduced a number of tools over the years to alleviate this problem. It does data summarization across reviews so that you can see at a glance what are the things most frequently mentioned about the restaurant (e.g. popular menu items). You can see a distribution of the ratings to see how consistent a restaurant is. You can also see ratings trends to see if the restaurant is getting better or trending downward.

But often, people just want a few options. Too much choice and too much data is overwhelming. People don’t want to spend 30 minutes figuring out where to go. We’ve been getting recommendations from Amazon and Netflix for decades. “People who liked X also liked Y.” “Based on your previous ratings, here are places we think you’ll like.” This is especially important in mobile, where people are often more hurried and the screen real estate in which to read is limited. That’s what Google is trying to do with Hotpot.

In some ways, this is an easier problem to solve than Web search. If you’re looking up answers for Jeopardy, there is usually only one right answer. And if Google can’t find it, you know right away. For a discovery-oriented local search, there is more than one right answer. And if the answer isn’t what you were expecting, you won’t know for hours and you might not blame Google. (The restaurant might have had an off night.) For more details, see my earlier post about making intelligent recommendations in local search.

Picking the right social graph

In order to make the best recommendations, you need data. You need data from the user about their preferences and you need a good social graph from which to present options. The more data the better.

This is a significant challenge for Google. Other companies in the social space such as foursquare, Gowalla, Quora and Instagram, have piggy-backed off Facebook’s social graph. That’s not an option for Google. And I’m not willing to spam all of my friends to invite them to use Google Hotpot. The advent of Facebook Connect has made such spamming less socially acceptable. As a result, I have exactly one friend on Hotpot — and he’s a Google employee.

Foursquare’s social graph is OK, but it’s a bit small given the current focus on check ins. The number of people who I want to be able to see where I’m at in realtime is fairly small. But I’d be comfortable sharing historical data on reviews and ratings with a much larger audience.

Facebook’s social graph is ideal for this application. It has a lot of personal connections, including both close and loose connections. The loose connections are important because they help provide coverage that you might not have in your tighter friend circle. For example, the data to make recommendations for Indian restaurants in Paris might be from a former colleague who now lives in Paris.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at some of the key success factors for local search.

Part II: How the battle for local search will be won

Google Hotpot takes a stand in Portland

19 Feb

Google isn’t known for its consumer marketing. If anything, Google is known for not doing much consumer marketing. Given its strong brand and the attention its products get, it hasn’t really had to do much. Put out a product, blog it and sit back while media fall over themselves to cover the launch.

Local is a different beast. Reaching people in local markets takes more effort. And Google sure is making it. Google has put on a full-court press in Portland since December for its Hotpot product. The results are mixed: I like the effort, but it needs more local flavor.

It’s the largest consumer marketing effort I’ve seen Google undertake (the 2010 Super Bowl ad notwithstanding.) It incorporates out-of-home, joint promotions with small businesses, event marketing, social media and online advertising.

It’s also the largest local marketing effort I’ve seen by an internet company since I was at washingtonpost.com in the late 90s. We hosted frequent community events. The Post bought an SUV, expanded it, put in computers (with a satellite internet connection) and drove it around to events at places like the MCI Center.

What is Hotpot?

Hotpot is a ratings and recommendations engine that sits somewhere between foursquare and Yelp. Instead of focusing on getting people to write rich, in-depth reviews like Yelp, Hotpot is trying to get people to quickly rate places and write short reviews. It doesn’t have check in functionality (that’s in Google Latitude), but the space provided for reviews is more similar to foursquare tips than it is to Yelp reviews.

One of my longstanding complaints about local review sites is that they require users to do too much work to figure out where to go. Google hopes to change that by providing recommendations based on your ratings and presumably the ratings of your friends. This post is focused on Google’s marketing activity; I’ve also written a detailed product review of Google Hotpot.

Out-of-home

Google is using a variety of out-of-home advertising channels. The marketing assault begins the moment you step off a plane at Portland International Airport.

A Google places banner at PDX

(This banner is no longer up.)

There’s a transit campaign with wrapped light rail vehicles:

Max light rail vehicle with Google wrap

Max light rail vehicle with Google wrap

Google has also purchased billboards around town promoting various small businesses. I’ve seen a couple of them. They feature photos of the business as well as a Google map.

Split Google places billboard for Pulse Salon

Split Google places billboard for Pulse Salon. Each half is a full-size billboard.

I’ve also seen ads run before movies. It’s been a while, so I can’t remember the creative. Here’s the call to action at the end:

Theater advertising

Getting local businesses onboard

A new-style Google sticker

A new-style Google sticker with an embedded NFC tag. But there's no call to action.

Google has hired local teams to approach businesses and explain Hotpot. They provide businesses with NFC-enabled stickers. I’ve seen these popping up all over town. These stickers have no Places, Maps or Hotpot branding — just Google.

While Google has been effective in getting businesses to put them up, the stickers themselves are ineffective. There’s no call to action — not even an URL. The vast majority of users can’t interact with them because they’re only NFC-enabled. In the U.S., that pretty much means having a Google Nexus S phone. But even if you had an NFC-capable phone, there’s no indication that this sticker can be scanned. Most NFC-enabled cards and devices have an icon with emanating radio waves. Not only does that give people a clear indicator that NFC is present, it inspires curiosity and serves as a subtle call to action.

Ideally the stickers would have both NFC and QR codes. QR codes can be used by millions of devices. NFC is currently used by virtually no one in the U.S. (Including Google’s Hotpot community manager; her Nexus S didn’t have a data plan.)

Compare Google’s sticker with this sticker for Facebook deals. Although Facebook’s sticker is much busier, it has a clear call to action.

The street teams also help businesses claim their own Places page.

Small businesses can also order a variety of Google schwag online for free.

Business giveaways

Google is giving away pints and custom pint glasses at Deschutes Brewery. Just show the bartender the Places app on your Android or iPhone.

Free pints (and pint glasses) at Deschutes

The pint glasses have Google branding on one side and Deschutes branding on the other side.

According to one bartender, they had 2,000 of these to give away and the promotion continues until they run out. One of the challenges with running such promotions is staff training. As a consumer, it’s frustrating when staff isn’t aware of a promotion. That hasn’t been an issue at Deschutes; everyone seems to know about it. I’ve even seen bartenders explain Google Places to customers. One missed opportunity here: the pint glasses should come with a promotional flier explaining Hotpot to new users.

The free pint is restricted to the Red Chair Northwest Pale Ale. (I’m guessing Google gets a break on the retail price for promoting a newer beer.) Deschutes tracks pints given away in its point-of-sale system. It shows up on the receipt as “Hotpot special”.

Oddly, the Deschutes Place page makes no mention of this promotion.

Deschutes also has Google coasters. These don’t seem to be in widespread use. I happened to catch one out of the corner of my eye and asked the bartender to see more. The coasters only have Google Places branding. Unlike Yelp, which punishes businesses for soliciting reviews, Google seems to be encouraging it.

A more recent promotion with Powell’s Books wasn’t as seamless. Google is offering free Klean Kanteen water bottles to anyone who shows up at Powell’s, makes a $10 purchase and shows the Hotpot app. Unfortunately, no one told the Powell’s airport store about it. The staff spent about 20 minutes trying to figure it out, calling corporate and other stores. This is a bad use of staff time and not a great customer experience.

Event marketing

Hotpot community manager Vanessa Schneider at Beer and Blog

Hotpot community manager Vanessa Schneider at Beer and Blog

Google is doing a variety of events in market to promote Hotpot. The events target various audiences including mass market, tech influencers, the young and hip.

Google sponsored an event at a Portland Trailblazers game where it gave away 22,000 T-shirts.

Google had a team at the Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort giving away hats and mittens.

Google picked up the tab for drinks at a beer-and-blog event focused on the Portland tech community. I estimate that 100 people showed up for that. Google’s Hotpot Community Manager, Vanessa Schneider, was at the event. She is based in Mountain View and flies up for the events. I also met several people who live in Portland and are part of Google’s street team. (Technically, they work for a staffing agency.)

Google was actively soliciting feedback on the product. It also announced its free Best Ever concert series in Portland. Google will be showcasing local bands at a rollerskating rink, on a boat and at a university chapel.

Next week, Google is hosting at least 20 people in a box at a Portland Traiblazers game. Tickets were given away using a trivia contest on Twitter. You had to be faster than Watson on the draw; someone usually won right away. (I just missed out.)

Social media

Blogs, Twitter and Quora have been an integral part of the campaign. @Tweeting most Google accounts is like talking into an abyss. Schneider has been active on the hotpot blog, Twitter and Quora. Questions are usually answered very quickly. She also curates and retweets activity by Portlanders related to Hotpot. She also provided a definition of her role.

Social media is also how they’re managing giveaways. For the concert series, concertgoers will need to get wristbands. Locations for picking up the wristbands will be announced on Twitter.

The blog includes guest posts by Portlanders talking about their favorite places in the city.

Print media

Google has been advertising its concert series in the local alternative weekly:

Google Hotpot concert print ad in Willamette Week

Branding is a mess

Google is using a variety of different brands in the campaign: Google, Google Places and Google Hotpot.

  • Google appears on the NFC stickers and pint glasses.
  • Google Places appears on the coasters and some of the OOH pieces, including the airport signage.
  • Hotpot appears on the Deschutes receipts (yes, I consider that part of the branding) and the hats given away.

I haven’t seen it as part of this campaign, but Latitude is another related Google brand that adds to the confusion. Latitude recently added check-in functionality.

While Hotpot has a dictionary definition related to community and sharing, most people I talk to think Google just misspelled hotspot and it’s a service related to WiFi.

The whole thing is a mess and should be made consistent. As I wrote this post, I struggled what to call the thing. If you were confused, blame Google.

Missed opportunities

Food carts in Portland

Food carts like this are a staple of the Portland dining scene. Unfortunately, Google Places has the worst coverage of food carts in its database among the major local players.

Although the campaign isn’t over, there are a few things that I haven’t seen done yet. (It’s possible that I just missed them, but I haven’t seen a record of them.)

  • Portland has a unique food cart culture. While food carts have become popular in many cities, Portland is their Mecca. There are more than 300 of them — many of which never move. A lot of them serve gourmet food and they cover a wide range of cuisines. It would be easy to use Twitter to organize flash mobs at a food cart pod, e.g. “Free youcanhascheeseburger! at Brunchbox for the next 30 minutes.” Other promotions could involve scavenger hunts/ratings-based promotions at food carts. Unfortunately for Google, it has a real product problem here. Google Places coverage of food carts is the worst I’ve seen in the space. Foursquare, Yelp and Facebook all have much more comprehensive listings. Bing even has a dedicated food cart finder.
  • Events targeting small business owners. Local is a two-sided market. You need businesses and consumers. Engagement on one side will encourage engagement on the other. I would like to see Google educating businesses about how to use the Internet and Google’s tools. While Google has thrown quite a few events, I haven’t seen anything specific to the business community.
  • OMSI Science Pub. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry hosts frequent events where speakers talk about technology. The technology behind Google Places is impressive and would make a great topic. (One of the best tech/business talks I’ve heard was John Hanke of Google speaking at Berkeley.)
  • Cycling. Cycling is huge in Portland, with many miles of bike lanes. Reaching out to that community seems like a sizable opportunity.
  • NFC. I’m not sure why Google is placing such a big bet on NFC right now. But if that’s their path, they should consider distributing NFC microSD cards to Android users in Portland so that they can experience the technology.
  • Social interaction among participants. One of the reasons that Yelp has been so successful in getting people to review places is that they’ve built a rewards system that engenders community among Yelp users. They encourage each other to review. Yelp events further this interaction by providing additional glue. It would be interesting to see Google design events that try to do the same.
  • A customized landing page. Google is promoting the “google.com/places” URL heavily in its Portland advertising. What’s the first thing you get when you go there? A giant marker pinned to a map… of San Francisco. Details like that matter.

I have no inside knowledge of how Google structured its campaign, but it feels a little like Google algorithmically determined what businesses to target and developed the campaign without understanding the unique things about Portland. The strategy seems generic and the tactics could be applied in any market. That may be the point, but I think that misses an opportunity to make something really special that exudes “getting it.”

This reminds me of HSBC’s long-running campaign about the importance of local knowledge. They emphasize that despite being an international brand, they understand each of their local markets and how things may seem the same can vary across markets. Google’s efforts could show more knowledge of the local market. This actually doesn’t take as much effort as it sounds — spending a week or two in Portland would have provided the types of ideas I listed above.

HSBC ad

HSBC ad illustrating the value of local knowledge

Cost and effectiveness

Google is clearly spending a lot of money in Portland relative to other marketing efforts in the local space. Based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s probably in the $700,000-$1,000,000 range. A single promotion like the Deschutes giveaway is more than the entire marketing budget for some Google product launches.

Despite Google Maps providing the infrastructure for many of the Web’s local efforts, Google has gotten trounced by Yelp when it comes to ratings and reviews. Unlike Yelp, Google doesn’t have a person in each local market. Campaigns like this are one way to help move the needle.

How effective has it been? It’s too soon to say. But here are a few indicators:

  • The Hotpot Twitter account has about 1,100 followers. A small portion of these are local businesses.
  • When Google tweeted questions for the Trailblazers game tickets, the first answer usually came in within seconds. Each question had around 12-24 unique responders.
  • The pint glasses at Deschutes don’t seem to be flying off the shelves. Even after they added more signage about the promotion, I don’t see a lot of tables with Google pint glasses on them when I visit.
  • When I ask my non-technical friends about whether they’ve seen any Google advertising around town, the answer is no.

Overall, it’s exciting to see Google spend this much effort on consumer marketing and specifically on local. Their efforts will not only help Google, but all of the players in the space.

See also:

Disclosure: I have several good friends who work at Google and went to high school with co-founder and CEO Larry Page. I’ve benefited from free drinks and other Google schwag at various Google promotions in Portland.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/asmythie/5460349242/&#8221; title=”Split Google places billboard for Pulse Salon by asmythie, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5300/5460349242_8f00575b9a.jpg&#8221; width=”500″ height=”237″ alt=”Split Google places billboard for Pulse Salon” /></a>

Maximizing the value of deals on Facebook and foursquare

14 Feb

Facebook Places punch card

I was walking down the street the other day and did a search on Facebook Places. Up popped up a deal for Boyd’s Coffee: get 10 punches and get a free drink. As a potentially new customer, this was not the least bit attractive. I had no idea what their coffee tasted like. In order to get a deal, I’d have to visit at least 10 times. It may work as a retention tool, but not as an acquisition tool. A better offer for new customers would be 50 cents or a dollar off a drink.

Likewise, many of the mayor offers on foursquare aren’t appealing to the casual user. As foursquare has gotten more popular, it may take visiting nearly every day to win a mayorship at popular venues.

Most traditional marketing tools have focused on either acquisition or retention. Coupons (including Valpak and Groupons) get people in the door. Loyalty programs (like punch cards) entice existing customers to come back.

Facebook, Foursquare and the like offer the promise of doing both — if offers can be adapted for the user. As long as I haven’t checked into the venue before, I get a $1 off coffee coupon. Once I’ve redeemed that, it becomes the punch card.

Because Facebook and foursquare use persistent identity, they are less susceptible to abuse than paper coupons. This allows merchants to make richer introductory offers if they choose: the merchant could offer a free coffee the first time.

The platforms could also be adapted to support refer-a-friend promotions. For example, Tristan Walker recently tweeted about an incredible banana beignet dessert at Tamarine. I added that to my to-do list. Businesses could use these data to recognize and reward key influencers.

While the existing platforms are somewhat limited, they could quickly evolve into tools that give small businesses CRM tools that the big guys have.

A Facebook deals sticker at Boyd's Coffee

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